Lessons in Anniversaries

September 4, 2019
Dean David N. Hempton
Dean David N. Hempton. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

David N. Hempton, HDS Dean, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, and John Lord O'Brian Professor of Divinity, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on September 4, 2019.


From the fruit of their lips a person is filled with good things as surely as the work of their hands rewards them. The way of a fool seems right to themselves, but a wise person listens to advice. A fool shows their annoyance at once, but a prudent person overlooks an insult. A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies. Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:14-18)

As a historian, I have a natural interest in anniversaries, made more acute this summer by the celebration of my own 40th wedding anniversary. Wow! This has been a vintage summer for anniversaries: we have had the 50th anniversaries of Woodstock and the moon landing. Two other anniversaries got my attention this summer. The first was the 200th anniversary of what came to be known as the Peterloo massacre in Manchester, England, when 18 people were killed when the Lancashire yeomanry were sent in to arrest a radical orator named Henry Hunt at a giant political rally in the world’s first industrial city. Unaccustomed to dealing with large crowds and spooked by the radical implications of Hunt’s oratory, they lost discipline and ended up killing many innocent bystanders.

Another anniversary, far more costly in terms of human life and far more important to me personally, was the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, which over a period of 30 years cost almost 4,000 lives. I was a young teenager living in Belfast when the “Troubles” broke out in 1969, and a year later I entered the local university and had my student years dominated by sectarianism and violence.

In the many TV and radio programs dedicated to remembering the “Troubles” broadcast last month in Ireland, a few themes stood out to me. The first is that oppressive social structures, hyper partisanship, mutually incompatible aspirations, and violent rhetoric preceded the outbreak of violence. When violence did break out, the early decision making and actions by leaders of all kinds turned out to be deeply flawed and only contributed to the breakdown that followed.

A second theme that stood out in the many interviews with political, ecclesiastical, and paramilitary leaders is a sense of utter futility and regret. What on earth had it all been about, and was it worth the deaths of so many people? What was really accomplished by violence that could not have been accomplished in other ways? What was striking to me was not only how many people died, but also how many more lives were ruined forever.

There was the story of a Protestant paramilitary member who shot his Catholic workmate in the back of the head and could never forgive himself for his own callous violence. In prison and out, he tried to rehabilitate, only to take his own life in an act of unresolved guilt and anguish.

Another incident involved the murder of Lord Mountbatten in County Sligo. There could be no more perfect representative of British imperialism than Mountbatten, who was the last British viceroy of India, so he was an obvious target for the Irish Republican Army. He was murdered by blowing up his boat, and many others, including children, died in the blast. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching the etched anguish and tears of a bereaved mother talking about the senseless murder of her beloved child.

So, what is the point of anniversaries and of remembering? Aren’t some things best forgotten? In some ways yes, but I can’t help thinking that the kind of hyper partisanship and irresponsible oratory that leads to violence is not too far from our own doors in this country. What are we going to do about it?

Looking back, I wish that leaders of all kinds in Ireland had done a better job trying to understand the motivations of those they regarded as their enemies. Everyone from politicians to journalists and from church leaders to university academics and students could have taken more responsibility for what was happening around them. But we didn’t. The problems seemed too intractable, the sides too divided, their aspirations too incompatible. Does that sound familiar?

Trying hard to understand the lives and motivations of people whose views and aspirations were completely antithetical to mine became a vital part of my own intellectual and moral education. That often meant sitting in meetings or across dining table conversations where I felt deeply uncomfortable about what was being said. Sometimes I was right to be uncomfortable, but sometimes I was uncomfortable because I was different, insecure, and felt threatened or outraged by what was being said.

All this was messy and difficult, made worse by the daily litany of violence which pushed almost everyone to extremes. But I did learn in this environment, however imperfectly, to engage with diversity of culture, religion, opinion, aspiration, and identity. It was the single most important lesson I learned at college.

No two situations are ever the same. But I will say that the level of partisanship on display in the U.S. and the inability of many of us to listen to contrary views is disturbing. Please don’t misunderstand this. I am not making a plea for casual acceptance of views that should properly disturb us—whether Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, white supremacist, misogynist, homophobic, or whatever—but it is a plea for difficult and vital conversations across differences, including ideological, religious, and political differences.

If this cannot happen at a university, whose proper function is the evaluation of ideas and their consequences, then where? If not among us, then who? If not now, when? These are urgent questions. Retiring to our comfort zones of ideological conformity is simply not an option.